MIAMI — Florida already has deep property insurance problems.
Rates are skyrocketing for tens of thousands of homeowners. Four private companies have abandoned the state this year, a dozen more have gone belly up in recent years and others have limited coverage after a string of devastating hurricanes, including Ian last year — the most expensive storm in state history. Business has consequently exploded for Citizens, the state-run insurer of last resort, and so has the risk of financial trouble for Florida if a major metro area takes a bad hit.
A new study and a string of recent financial and industry reports suggest it could get even worse for Florida and other states such as California and Louisiana hammered by natural disasters like wildfires, floods and hurricanes.
The latest study, released Wednesday by the First Street Foundation, warns of a looming “climate insurance bubble” — a double whammy of rising rates and rising risks that potentially could have major economic ripple effects on Florida’s housing market and economy.
If rising risks from hurricanes and other climate-driven disasters make insurance too expensive for people to buy homes, or banks to give mortgages to homes in vulnerable spots, it could set off a spiral of declining demand and declining property values, the report found.
The report from First Street, a non-profit that analyses climate threats, suggests about 39 million homes across the country could lose value as insurers begin to calculate climate risks into premiums.
“The biggest problem is we’ve been subsidizing insurance and risk for so long, which ended up ultimately promoting development in risky areas for the last half century or so,” said Jeremy Porter, First Street’s director of research and development. “We’ve built up a climate debt that hasn’t been paid yet.”
Judging by soaring home prices across much of the state, the threat of a bubble hasn’t had a major impact on the real estate market yet, though consumer complaints about insurance costs have exploded.
First Street isn’t alone in warning about climate change’s impacts on the already shaky property insurance markets in Florida and other states. Moody’s Investor Services, in a September report, outlined how the companies that financially back insurance companies are already factoring climate risk into their rising rates, which get passed directly to consumers.
At the same time, plenty of insurance companies have insisted that while they view climate change-linked disasters as a long-term threat, those risks play a lesser role in current premium increases than other factors like bad bills and a glut of lawsuits or fraud.
Recovering after a disaster has also gotten more costly because more and more people are packed into some of the most dangerous and hard-to-insure places in the county, like Florida’s coasts.
While Florida’s insurance issues are more complicated than just more floods and storms, they certainly don’t help. And the Sunshine State isn’t the only one feeling the effects of a warming world.
Sea levels are already several inches higher, which makes coastal flooding more frequent and more intense. Extreme rainfall, scientists say, is also getting more common, raising the risk of rain bombs like the one that crippled Fort Lauderdale earlier this year. Extreme heat and drought conditions make it more likely that wildfires will burn hotter and spread further.
The connection with hurricanes is a little more complicated, but scientists are most confident that climate change is making it more likely that hurricanes could get stronger and wetter.
“When you think about homes, we’re on an ever-steepening curve of risk across the county,” said Rob Moore, a senior policy analyst with the Natural Resources Defense Council. “Wherever you live today, it’s going to be a little more risky the year after that and a little more risky the year after that.”
What is clear is as the cost of insuring against floods, fires and storms rises, an increasing number of insurers are making the call to stop insuring certain areas — or states — altogether.
Donald Hornstein, a professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s law school and a board member of the state’s insurer of last resort, said he doesn’t think of the problem as a bubble, but as an issue that has been simmering for many years already.
“Climate insurance is a systemic and long-term problem. It’s not going to pop. It’s going to get worse,” he said.
The challenge of assessing the ongoing impact of increasing climate risk is separating it from other factors that go into calculating an annual insurance premium. Inflation, for instance, has driven up the cost of rebuilding damaged properties. And market forces differ from state to state.
Friedlander argues soaring premiums have been driven more by fraud and lawsuits. Miami Herald/Tampa Bay Times reporting has also shown that bad business practices, including excessive pay for executives, may have also been a factor in the bankruptcy and withdrawals for some insurers in Florida.
And while all those fleeing companies have led the state’s insurer of last resort to climb from about 500,000 policies in 2016 to nearly 1.4 million today, Friedlander said insurers are still more stable here than in Louisiana. In 2022, they paid out $1.36 in claims for every dollar in premiums they took in, he said.
The best hope for Florida’s battered insurance market would be a break from an especially active six-year streak of hurricanes.
Hurricane Ian, which caused $60 billion in insured losses last year, took a big bite out of the cash reserves for insurance companies, reinsurance companies and the Florida Hurricane Catastrophe Fund (FHCF), a state-funded reinsurer that makes sure companies can pay out homeowners claims in full. Hurricane Ian, alone, depleted two-thirds of the FHCF balance, leaving it with just $3.7 billion on hand.
It will take years to build that balance back up.
“Eleven years of minimal storm activity from 2006 to 2016 resulted in the FHCF accumulating sufficient reserves to prepare for future storms,” the fund wrote in a February report. It noted that it would have to sell bonds or impose a hurricane tax on all Floridian policyholders to make ends meet if another big storm hit this year.
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